SUMMER/AUTUMN 2015 / VOL 15 ISSUE 2
Books

Saints

By Terry Coffman
 

It was this letter that told me Jonathan was alive. I took the train from Front Royal to Raleigh County to see Jonathan. I hardly recognized him. He was slim, very thin, and yet his eyes were the same bright blue that I remembered. His gait and speech were slower. Once I saw him naked in the bathroom. He was covered in tattoos. On his back was a snake that twisted its way from his buttocks to the nape of his neck. Jonathan would sit alone under a magnolia tree for hours, saying nothing and looking directly into the sun. I thought he was trying to blind himself or maybe he was trying to find God in the light. 

I found Jonathan was different than the young medic I had met so long ago in the field hospital on the frontlines of Hell. He was withdrawn, not arrogantly removed, but withdrawn because of uncertainty and shame. He was lost in thoughts of where he belonged, and why he had seen, and experienced, such terrible things. In the beginning of our relationship he came to me for only a few weeks. It was in my darkest hours, and little did I realize just how long our friendship was to last. In the early years after the war, my image of him was of the tall laughing young fellow who saw the world in naïve ways. What I found, on our first reunion, was a soulful, inwardly calm, thirty-year old war veteran. Wounded, but not broken. 

I believe much of life is ordained to be both difficult and miraculous. The events in our lives are not determined by our intellect, but by a greater intelligence. We foolishly think it is our choices that are at work in determining our fate. It is not. Divine intervention, matched to our soulís needs, is the truth that guides us to God. When we are old and gray, we have the maturity to look back over our lives to see that what has transpired in this current incarnation is what we needed. We are like a jigsaw puzzle that takes a long time to become recognizable. Our experiences accumulate over a lifetime. Each experience joins with others to become a portrait of who we are. 

Over the course of our correspondence, I learned my friend was from an old Virginia family. His people were landowners whose farm was not far from where Thomas Jefferson had lived. After the conflict between the states, the MacCumberís lost most of their land. Jonathanís great grandfather retained a hundred acres of bottom land, and with hard work and no slaves, he managed to raise tobacco on land that was only fit to cultivate rice. By the turn of the century he was not only growing the finest tobacco in the Virginias, but he began manufacturing cigarettes. 

While Jonathanís father, Walter MacCumber owned and ran the tobacco company, his two sons, a daughter, and his wife Clara, lived a very comfortable life. The reigning patriarch planned that one day his two sons would take over the business. But that day never came. 

Jonathanís older brother was killed at 17 when his car became stuck on the railroad tracks. A year later Walter MacCumber shot himself. Soon after, my friendís mother sold the company. There was so much debt, no one, not even Jonathan or his sister, was aware of how precarious the situation was. According to my friend, her neighbors assumed his mother was still a wealthy woman. Southern women are proud; keeping up appearances was paramount for Mrs. MacCumber. She successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of her neighbors by maintaining an illusion of prosperity, but when out of the public eye, she ran her home like a poor Franciscan abbey. Jonathanís mother was frugal and wore the same dresses and bonnets acquired during her affluent marriage days. Most people thought she was eccentric, not poor. According to Jonathan, he and his sister Elisabeth were oblivious to their plight. Clara MacCumber made a game of self-denial. The MacCumber children thought their poverty was simply play, not real, just a game. 

Jonathan wrote that he and his sister both followed their motherís lead by wearing old, out of style clothing. He said it was like sporting a costume. They enjoyed pretending they were poor. They preferred chicken instead of steak. Water-downed milk was better than the fancy bottled water from France they drank at dinnertime in the old days. And, it was fun doing chores rather then letting servants or nannies take care of cleaning, making beds, or fixing meals. Chores meant less time for esoteric pursuits and, best of all, no more piano lessons. When they were toddlers, field hands not only cut the tobacco, they planted and tended the family garden. Back then, Jonathan loved to get his hands dirty, but he was never allowed to soil his hands. When alive, my friendís father made him wear gloves outdoors. Dirt under the nails was cause for spankings. Now the gloves were torn and tattered, useless shreds of canvas not to be replaced because of lack of money. The undersides of his once aristocratic fingernails were black and their hands scarred by brambles and barbed wire.

His mother was a master at covering up her predicament. She felt responsible to maintain her dead husbandís reputation. To do so meant living a lie to outsiders. Mrs. MacCumber was able to bamboozle everyone who knew or did business with her. She had lawyers, ministers, the country club, and even the bank, fooled. She could do without most things from her former life, but she knew that if her children were to have a chance at a productive life, their education would be paramount. A loan with no collateral or application was approved by the local bank and used for her childrenís education at exclusive private schools. 

Of MacCumbers old prep school friends, his closest companion was a tall, lanky fellow of Indian decent named Ravi. He was the grandson of the mystic yogi Ramacharaka, known throughout India for his wisdom and compassion. Ravi had always lived in Chicago and wanted to visit the country of his parents and ancestors. Nothing seemed to draw Jonathan out of depression, so when he received a letter from Ravi asking if he would like to travel together to Dalla Chack, India, he agreed. 

MacCumber told me he sent a single word telegram reply of "Yes". 

Ravi lived in Chicago. He was studying medicine at Northwestern University. His family was Brahmin, thus respected and influential Indians. They were also rich. 

In one of his letters, Jonathan revealed to me, "You know Morgan, what she was doing to us was worse, she was fooling us children. I figured it out eventually. When I told my sister, she told me she had known for years. I asked why she never told me. You know what she said? ĎI wanted to protect you.í Morgan, I spent so much of my youth under the illusion that my experiences were normal, but, in fact my life was constructed around lies. After she told me that she knew, I swore Iíd always be a truth seeker." 

Ravi took a train from Chicago to Richmond where he met Jonathan. The two spent a few days sightseeing. They visited Confederate battlefields, Monticello and the first capital of Virginia, Williamsburg. Each night, after Ravi and Jonathan returned from their excursions, Jonathanís mother fixed them southern dinners. Ravi was new to grits with gravy, Smithfield ham, succotash and hush puppies. Coming from the big city of Chicago, he rarely tasted garden fresh vegetables. Mrs. MacCumber made it a point to feed him heaping amounts of beets, brussels sprouts, collards, tomatoes and turnips that were either picked, or canned, from her garden. But, what Ravi liked best was dessert. Peach pie and bread pudding were his favorites. He also enjoyed making ice cream with Jonathanís sister. She took cream, milk, vanilla bean seeds and egg yolks to make custard that was divine. She poured the mixture in a metal canister and cranked the dasher handle. Raviís job was to keep the rock salt and ice filled in the wooden tub where the canister set. MacCumber said Ravi was a skinny fellow, but by the end of his week stay, his stomach protruded and he had gained 10 pounds. 

Jonathan told me that when it came time to leave, his mother asked Ravi to watch over him saying, "Donít let my son get stepped on by an elephant or eaten by a tiger. And, you make sure he comes home real soon." Ravi promised. Jonathanís sister, Mary Anne, drove them to the Port of Norfolk. There they boarded a Turkish ship.

After months upon ocean and seas, they arrived in Izmir where they caught a slow moving train, traveling across Turkey to Karachi. The two reached Gurdaspur in the old state of Punjab by way of the East India Railway. In one of his letters from India MacCumber wrote, "The heat of Virginia and the heat of India are similar, the only difference is that one is humid and the other dry. But Morgan, I assure you it is all that is similar."

On first meeting Raviís grandfather, MacCumber said he was overcome with a sense that he had been in this manís presence before. Years earlier in Siam, a Buddhist monk had become his first spiritual guide. That old monk had held his wrinkled hands together in the same praying position as Raviís granddad. In his letter, Jonathan told me that both the monk and the yogi smiled alike. These two holy men apparently even smelled the same and they both spoke with few words. MacCumber sensed these two souls were the same teacher. I have often thought that MacCumberís own soul was very old. 

MacCumber described Yogi Ramacharaka as a small man. His sepia colored eyes reflected tranquility and looking into them was like gazing into a cup of Darjeeling tea sweetened by honey and milk. He had a flowing white beard and a mane of hair that touched his shoulders. 

In Gurdaspur it is too hot to wear anything but lightweight clothing. Ramacharaka preferred to cover himself in a simple short white sheath. His thin bare chest and legs gave him the appearance of a street beggar. He refused to wear sandals that would have protected his feet from the gritty sand and cutting stones. He told MacCumber it was for penance. MacCumber thought, penance for what? The man was pure. When my friend asked one of the yogiís disciples to explain, he replied. "Man cannot be pure. To completely surrender oneís body or mind is impossible."

When MacCumber first met Ramacharaka, the yogi asked him why he came to India. Jonathan said that he replied, "Your grandson, Ravi, brought me here." 

Ramacharaka laughed and asked again. "I am not asking you who brought you to me. I am asking why you came to India." 

MacCumber thought he wanted a simpler reply, so he told the yogi he came to India for experience. Ramacharaka shook his head and walked away. Jonathan said that for days the yogi continued to ask, "Why are you here?" MacCumber supplied many answers, but none were accepted. 

Several weeks went by and Ramacharaka refused to engage in any conversation with my friend. His only words were the question. "Why have you come to India?" MacCumber wrote, "Morgan, I could not finesse an answer." 

"Truth," Ramacharaka said, "is hard; evasion easy."

"I arrived here because I am lost," MacCumber admitted.

Ramacharaka smiled and embraced Jonathan. A tear followed the curve of his cheek and rested upon his lip, and the wise man said, "Good, now your soul, which is the real you, is speaking truth. Everything that is, is eternal. Nothing is lost. Eternity exists on both sides of now; now is only a point in eternity, and you are here now. You are never lost. You are simply on a journey, and this is how you came to India. 

It came time for Ravi and Jonathan to return home. Ravi had spent time with his Indian relatives and was ready to take on greater responsibly in his familyís business back in Chicago. It was time for him to leave. For Jonathan it was different. Maybe it was because India reminded him of Siam. Siam had given him insights into religious thought and ideas. What he learned in the East was richer then the southern Baptist ideology of his childhood. He asked Ramacharaka if he could stay. The wise manís answer was, "Stay were you belong."

In the presence of Ramacharaka, MacCumber was embraced in bliss. He treasured sitting under the cover of the shade tree that was near Ramacharakaís house, where he listened in rapture as the yogi taught his devoted students the meaning of journeys. The purpose of life, Ramacharaka believed, was to find truth. My friend spent eight years with the wise man. From 1927 to 1935, Ramacharaka opened windows that allowed MacCumber to see into his own soul; the yogi educated my friend to understand the principal philosophical systems of India. The Yogi said, "The Ganges is the home of Sanskrit and the mother of all religions. Our history is ancient. We Hindus have been touching God for ten thousand years." He taught MacCumber the origins of Hinduism, the wisdom of Buddhism, how to dance like the Sufis, and explained the source of the pain suffered by Muslims and Christians.

One day Ramacharaka saw MacCumber speaking to several new students, explaining the message the yogi delivered that morning to the class. The young men were concerned that they had failed to grasp the wisdom of the master and were therefore unworthy of being near him. They were embarrassed when they saw Ramacharaka approach, and Jonathan was frightened that he might anger his teacher with his translation of the spiritual manís message. Jonathan was nervous, yet he continued to explain to the disciples the yogiís morning lesson. Afterwards, Ramacharaka came to MacCumber and told my friend he had the gift to become a teacher.

From that moment on, Ramacharaka used MacCumber as his assistant, allowing him to prepare, and even give, his own lectures. MacCumber traveled throughout India with him, and the great teacher introduced the American to the multitudes. In 1930, while they were wandering along the Ganges, the two met the "Great Soul."

The age-old tensions between the British Government and the Indian people were finally reaching a critical stage. Most of the population wanted the British gone. Gandhi was seen by the faithful to be the savior who could bring about self-rule. Ramacharaka told MacCumber that they should follow the Great Soul as he marched to the sea. 

The march was a protest against the Salt Act, a law that made it a crime to possess salt not bought from the government. The Mahatma professed non-violence and non-cooperation. One night a gang of thugs, whom MacCumber suspected were British mercenaries, attempted to kidnap Gandhi. The devils forced their way into Gandhiís midst, a fight ensued, and MacCumber was thrown to the ground. 

As he lay there, MacCumber looked up and saw the Mahatma smiling with his arms outstretched to embrace the enemy. The Great Soul said to his would-be captors, "Whatever a man soweth, he shall also reap. We are all beholden to God." The kidnappers stopped their advance. Suddenly they fell to their knees weeping and begging Gandhi for forgiveness. 

MacCumber asked Ramacharaka why Gandhi chose the words of a Christian saint in such a perilous moment. I suppose my friend thought the words of a Hindu priest or a Muslim cleric would have been closer to his lips. 

The yogi said, "I have taught you that all religions are paths to God. The Lord has given Gandhi the wisdom to lead not only his followers, but his enemies as well. Do you remember the Roman soldier whose ear was cut off by the apostle in the Garden of Gethsemane? Jesus healed the man and the centurion became a believer."

Ramacharaka was a holy man, not a religious man; he often quoted the great prophets of the worldís religions. 

MacCumber and the yogi stayed with Gandhi for several months. They and seven followers, plus one scribe, made camp in a remote area not far from the small village of Sanjoo. Gandhi needed rest and this was a place where he would not be hounded by reporters, followers or enemies. Raviís grandfather and the Mahatma prayed, plotted and rested for almost a month. "The two men," wrote Jonathan, "are happy to be away from the crowds and British soldiers. They love taking long walks into the remote areas near Sanjoo. Sometimes they ask me to join them."

It was on one of these restorative walks that Gandhi was attacked, not by spies, but by a more deadly and frightening assassin. Ramacharaka, Gandhi and Jonathan were sitting on boulders, meditating, when a cobra slithered from its hiding place towards Gandhi. By the time Gandhi saw the snake, she was only three feet away from him. She lunged and missed hitting his arm by inches. He moved slowly backward, the cobra recoiled. She watched the Mahatmaís every attempt to move his body. Her head rocked in motion to the manís movements, her tongue gauged Gandhiís temperature and her eyes focused on his eyes. Saints and Martyrs are human, even holy men at their final hour fight until their last breath to live. Gandhi was scared. The kind of fright that momentarily freezes a man, and then, suddenly, survival kicks and fright turns into fury.

He knew the snake was planning another strike. It came fast. The snake caught her fangs in his robe. Gandhi screamed as she twisted her body over and over, trying to free herself from the fabric. The serpent whipped its hard tail across the holy manís face. He smelled the stench of her breath. She pulled back and one of her fangs freed itself from the cotton, but the other fang was still entangled in the white thread. The cobra pulled her head back and tried to swallow the fabric. The hissing grew louder. The cobra flipped its slithering body over and over, writhing to free itself. As the serpent was gasping for air the fang tore free. Panic took hold of both the man and snake. Venom dripped onto Gandhiís exposed leg. One more lunge and the snake would have sunk its poison into the holy man. The cobra raised its puffed head three feet into the air. A fang fell out of its mouth. The cobra suspended her attack. Gandhi went from fear to elation and, within a split second, awareness of his impending death. The cobra did not back off. Instinctively it knew that even with one fang, it could inflict a mortal bite. 

I suspect that Jonathanís hand seemed to come out of nowhere. The serpent never saw it coming. I knew from past letters how he caught snakes. So I imagine my friend clamped his fingers tightly around the serpentís head and neck. Jonathan then would have turned the creatureís head so that he and the snake were at eye level. MacCumber then would have moved his head from side to side and the snake would become docile. I can picture him walking slowly away from Gandhi and releasing the cobra off in the distance.

At the end of his letter about the attack, Jonathan wrote, "We left the next day. Gandhi was shaken, but laughed, and said to me thatís what he deserved for trying to kiss a cobra." They continued totravel throughout the country, building support for Gandhiís vision of an independent India. MacCumber wrote to his sister often, but because the Great Soulís band of disciples was constantly on the move, it was difficult for her letters, like mine, to find my friend. 

Jonathan was excited when, one day, a package arrived from his sister. As he tore open the brown wrapping paper and opened the box, a batch of envelopes fell to the ground. Thinking they were letters written by his sister, Annabelle Lea, he reached down to pick them up. He was overwhelmed when he saw that the postage stamps on the envelopes were from Siam. The letters were postmarked in Ayutthaya. They were from Kaew, his Princess of Siam. 

His sisterís accompanying letter explained that while she had been boxing up their deceased motherís books, she found the letters from Siam behind several volumes of Yeatsí poetry. MacCumber was now faced with a dilemma. Should he open the unread letters and risk bringing back a flood of memories? He had been successful in hiding her in the corners of his heart. 

Jonathan gathered the letters into his arms and sat down under a nearby tree. Kaewís handwriting flowed like musical notes. Her penmanship was perfect and the preciseness of her words gave greater clarity to her innermost thoughts.

MacCumber held several of the cream-colored packets close to his face. He took a deep breath, hoping he could catch her fragrance on the envelope. He ran his fingers across the return address, tracing circles around the letters that spelled her name. He opened the envelope with the earliest postmark, dated April 10, 1927.

Dear Jonathan,

In my dreams, you are by my side, soft and warm as we walk in the lemon rain that falls over Ayutthaya. We are lovers again. We sleep late in the mornings and wake to feed the finches on the ledge of our bedroom window. We walk along Soi Lansuan and stop for green tea with lemongrass. Buddha smiles at us. 

You are gone now and I wonder if I shall ever see you again. In my heart I know I will never lose you. Come back to Ayutthaya, Jonathan. Come back to me.

An arrangement has been made by my father for me to marry an older man. He is a wealthy businessman, one of the many friends of the King. I cannot love him, yet it is my familyís wish, and if I do not consent, my family will be shamed. 

I know what I shall I do.

I cannot live my life without you; I plan to run away. You will find me in the ruins of Ayutthaya. I will come each morning and lay under the tree in the old orchard where we first kissed. I will wait forever for you to return.

Your beloved,

Kaew 

Ramacharaka was standing near the river talking to a group of European Catholic nuns. As MacCumber approached them, the mystic removed his spectacles. Ramacharaka was about to introduce MacCumber, but stopped when he looked at the young manís eyes. Instead, he put his arm around MacCumberís shoulder and led his prize student away from the group. 

In his letter to me, Jonathan quoted a conversation he had with Ramacharaka concerning Kaewís correspondence.

"Have you been crying?" the guru asked.

MacCumber showed his teacher the letters from Kaew. 

"Love is Godís desire for all of us," Ramacharaka said.

"Should I write back to her?" Jonathan asked. 

"Fate is Godís chess board. He has moved you and the woman to different places; if he chooses, he will bring you together again. Keep the letters, there may come a day when you will need them. Do you recall when I told you that you were a teacher? Well, the time has come for you to take a different road than the one we have been traveling together. I must stay on this side of the Ganges; you must go to the other side. Somewhere, beyond the river, there is a place for you."

"Why canít I stay with you?" MacCumber asked. "Have I done something wrong?" "No, of course not. You have been a devoted follower and have helped me a great deal. But if you stay, you will not find your own path. Think of me as a bridge over which you have crossed. I must now fall away so that you can build bridges of your own." 

"Come, I want to introduce you to these good women. You need them more than you need me."

Ramacharaka introduced MacCumber to a Catholic nun, a Sister Borgia, who was looking for someone to teach English to Bengali girls. In a heavy French accent she asked, "Come with me to Calcutta, to the Moti Jheel slums. There I will show you an oasis in a desert of poverty. Amidst the poor who sleep in drainpipes, beg for scraps of rice, smell of dung and disease and pick rags and lice, I have a school, Saint Maryís Entally. We produce art and craft. Embroidery and painting give the students a chance to find hope and salvation. They are talented, bright young women. Yet talent is not enough. If they are to find salvation from the oppression of their lives then we must also teach them to read and write with the same diligence and outcomes they employ for craftsmanship and creativity." 

"I thought that salvation comes to those who renounce the temporal world for the spiritual universe of God," MacCumber said.

"No," she replied, "To know God best is to be wrapped in the cocoon of livingness. The word God, in whatever language or religion it is used, means that to which I belong. The Hindus say we have many life cycles and the purpose of each one is to cleanse ourselves of selfishness. Life is the path that leads to absorption into God." 

After meeting the nun, my friend MacCumber returned to the tent of Ramacharaka to tell his teacher that he would go with the sisters. "I will leave you for a while, but return next year to join you for the pilgrimage to the Ganges."

"No, you will not find me, Jonathan."

I recall Jonathan writing how strongly he raised his voice in response saying, "What do mean, not find you? Of course I will find you! I will come to Dalla Chack, meet you and the others, and we will travel to the sacred river as we did last year."

The yogi replied, "I am going elsewhere, to a place you can not go." 

MacCumber questioned, "I donít understand."

"Jonathan, all things to be seen can be found in a simple, shared bowl of rice." 

Perplexed, MacCumber said, "Your riddle makes no sense to me."

The yogi smiled saying, "It will in time. You have much to experience, much to learn, and you must travel far away before you will know the answer."

"Has the Mahatma called you to be with him?" MacCumber asked.

"The Mahatma will join me soon."

"I donít understand: why canít I join you?"

Ramacharaka smiled. "You will understand when I next speak to you. Go with the sisters tomorrow." 

During the first few months Jonathan taught at Saint Maryís Entally, he was privileged to have a very talented student from the district of Pradesh. Rijikari Saari was older than the other young women enrolled at Sister Borgiaís school. Riji, as MacCumber called her, was as beautiful as the legendary Princess of Shalimar. Rijiís dark eyes were pools in which a man could drown. She was blessed with a complexion that looked as though she bathed in the milk of sacred cows. Her hair was so black that it reflected the blue sky. She was kind and gentle, loved the larks that sang in the banyan trees and laughed with the monkeys living in the temple. She could not harm the insects that walked beneath her feet, nor taste the flesh of any animal. She would gladly kiss the cobras or the painted elephants for Lord Shiva. 

She was married and had two children; unfortunately one of them was deformed by leprosy. As a young child, her son Maka developed lumps on his face and his toes began to turn under his feet, which made it impossible for him to learn to walk. Three of his fingers rotted away from his left hand. Riji carried her boy on her hips until he was three. By four, his condition worsened and he had grown too heavy for her to carry; Riji placed him into a wheelbarrow. She pushed him to the shops, to the doctors, to the temple, and every place they needed to go. He was her constant companion, always happy, always smiling. It never entered his mind to ask his mother why people scurried like rats to get away from them.

Riji proved to be an inspiration to the students at Saint Maryís Entally School. She was an artistic person and she knew her gift of talent would be essential to her future. Through her example of hard work and courage her classmates discovered a path that could lead them to independence and freedom.

The first project MacCumber assigned to his students was to have them write about themselves. It served as a test to assess their writing skills, but more importantly for MacCumber, it offered him a way to satisfy his curiosity and learn what brought the women to the school. 

For her first essay, Riji wrote that she had always wanted to make things with her hands. She continued, writing that as a child she was captivated by the paintings hanging in the temple of her village. In her teens, Riji told her father she wanted to go to school to become an artist. She quoted him; apparently his words had been burned into her mind. He had decreed, "No, absolutely not! There is no future for you in the arts. If you choose to become involved in such a frivolous activity I will be unable to arrange a husband appropriate to our class."

She wrote about how her father sent her to nursing school. In her story she told how she met a young man who was in his last year of medical school. He was pushy and Riji was cautious. Riji made the mistake of introducing him to her family. Recognizing he would soon become a doctor, her father decided the future physician would be an appropriate prospect for Riji. Despite all her protests, her father approached the young manís family to see if a marriage could be arranged. Her father offered a substantial dowry. Riji was reluctant, but she was an obedient daughter. The couple was quickly married and two children were born within two years. 

When Rijiís firstborn son Sundar reached the age to go to school she applied to Saint Entally. She decided to pursue the dream her father had stolen from her. "For the first time in my life," she wrote, "I would follow the path that has a heart." As Jonathan told me, "Riji was coming to the place that had been waiting for her since she was a small girl." MacCumber realized it would be difficult for her. Following oneís dreams is often met with resistance. In India, family and friends, more often than not, are uncomfortable with relatives who have a desire to live a creative life. 

Jonathan thought back to his own youth. When he was in second grade, a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up; he told her, a cowboy.

The teacher replied, "Donít be stupid, cowboys only exist on the radio. Someday you can run your fatherís business. You want to make money, donít you?"

Thank God my friend Jonathan MacCumber didnít take her advice.

Maka was a humiliation to his father. The less he saw of the boy around the house the better. He hated the way his son looked and was repulsed by the smell of his childís rotting body. To his mother, Maka was beautiful. Anyone who had the eyes to really see into a personís soul would easily agree. Borgia was the kind person who had the gift to see beyond the surface. She offered Riji and her two sons the chance to live in a small room on the campus of the school. Rijiís husband gladly agreed to let his wife and children leave his home. But he did so only under the condition that their son, Sundar, would come home after school to do chores. Out of fear for her older son, Riji countered that she would return three evenings a week. At first her husband scoffed at the idea, but then he realized there would be opportunities for more enticing benefits without his sons around. His wife would no longer be able to refuse his cock.

Although he had reservations about his abilities to carry out such an important responsibility, MacCumber felt blessed to be a part of Rijiís journey. In spite of his self-doubt, he felt compelled by his own fate to help her. Just as he took care of me, he would do the same for Riji. His path in life had a purpose. He was beginning to understand that the war, his past in Siam, coming to India, and now this young Indian woman were pre-destined for a purpose. 

Jonathan had been at the school for a few months when the day came that hurled him into one of those shifts of life that we never see coming. The morning started just like all the others. Prayers, followed by the students and teachers sharing chapatti and roti covered in honey and jam, a cup of chai tea with milk and sugar, followed by morning exercise. The students divided themselves into their designated groups. The younger ones, or as they were called, Baloos, went to the elementary classroom. The teenagers, or Shere Khan, gathered in the gymnasium, and the young women, who were with child or had children, joyfully hurried off to the craft studio. These women were designated as Rakshas, a word Kipling used for mother wolves who are gentle with their cubs yet vicious to any predator that might threaten her babies. 

MacCumber was in the classroom with the Shere Kahn, or Tiger group, when he heard screaming coming from the schoolís garden. Rijikariís husband had come and dragged her out of her classroom. Pulling his wife by her arm, the struggling couple stumbled across the courtyard towards the gate that led to Moti Jheel. 

Sister Borgia blocked the way between the two and the miserable streets of Calcutta. With hands on her broad hips and a voice that hissed like a cornered snake, the sister confronted the man. "Why are you doing this?" 

He replied, "She is a wicked wife. She neglects my meals and laundry. She is too tired to perform her wifely obligations and she bore me a son who is rotting." 

As the nunís grip tightened around the red and black beads of the rosary, the chain snapped, and the painted wooden balls scattered, bouncing over the ground and rolling beneath her habit. Her eyes, framed by the white trim of the shawl covering her shaved head, seemed to penetrate deep into the evil soul of the Bengali physician. 

The sounds that exploded from her lips were like the wails of an enraged hyena protecting her young. "If you try to take her away, you will have to come through me." 

She pulled the large pruning shears from the hand of the gardener standing beside her. "I was taught how to kill bulls by one of the greatest matadors of Spain, and I will not hesitate placing this blade between your eyes!" 

The man must have thought Borgia was bluffing. He grabbed his wifeís hand and began moving toward the gate door. Suddenly, he stopped. The nun had cocked her two hands over her head and pointed the weapon at him. "Let her go, NOW!" she demanded. 

He let go of his wifeís hand and slipped sideways through the gap between the nun and the iron gate. As if an angry cobra, the two raised pruning blades her fangs, Borgia turned and watched the frightened husband run down the street. Dodging cows and crippled beggars, he never looked back. If he had, he would have seen the nun shaking out of fear. A bullfighter lives to defeat the raging bull and with each charge of the animal the matador deflects death. The matadorís heart beats wildly between fury and calm, and in the space between the two, he thanks God for survival.

As she walked slowly past MacCumber, she handed him the shears and said, "When one seeks to destroy anotherís dreams, one will destroy his own. When one helps another to achieve a dream, his own dreams will be fulfilled. That manís fate is sealed."

MacCumber was stunned by her action in the courtyard. He thought, how could a nun know how to use a sword? Who was this woman? Should I be so bold as to ask? The next day MacCumber had his chance. After morning mass, Sister Borgia always took a walk to inspect the garden. She plucked the withered and dying heads of flowers and pulled out any weed that dared enter her Eden. He followed her that morning, watching her bend down on one knee to inhale the fragrance of sweet peas. Her hand seemed to caress the bloom. MacCumber saw a tear fall across her cheek. She blessed herself and touched the gold crucifix above her heart. She looked up and saw him standing there. 

"Do you know, Mr. MacCumber, I brought the seeds of these sweet peas with me from the mother convent in Ireland?" 

He smiled; she could grow miracles in the Calcutta sand. Plants native to India shared the earth with English roses and camellias from Japan. The two strolled along the paths between the flowers and the Rose of Sharon thicket. The humming of bees collecting the essential substance to their lives was all around them. She pointed to blossoms, saying the Latin names. "This is Convallaria majalis and these are Syringa vulgaris." 

MacCumber asked, "Sister, yesterday, when you ran off Rijiís husband, you said you knew how to use a sword, that you were taught by a bull fighter. How can this be?" 

"I was born in Spain, but as a young, headstrong, and morally corrupt teenage girl, I ran away to live in France. First I went to Paris, and then a small village in Provence. My brother was a fledgling bullfighter. Worried that I would come to great harm living in a country so decadent as France, my father sent my brother to watch over me. He was my sentinel, my protector. He kept me safe from the dangers of the career I had chosen in those days." MacCumber asked. "What danger?" With a painful squint in her eye she replied, "Drunk sailors and Zouave soldiers." MacCumber tried to press her for more information, but her raised palm hushed his lips. "We must go now; the bees are beginning to swarm."

The next day MacCumber joined Rijikari, Sister Borgia, and a recently arrived nun from the northern provinces on an excursion to the Moti Jheel bazaar. The new sister was named Teresa. She spoke with a thick Slavic accent and was joining the school to teach geography and history. She had recently taken her final vows in the Himalayan village of Darjeeling. 

They stopped at a booth displaying Indigo fabrics. Rijikari was intrigued by the deep blue cotton textile with its pattern of yellow deer dancing between lotus plants. As she held the fabric against her shoulders, MacCumber noticed she was wearing an exquisite pair of antique silver earrings. My friend appreciated jewelry, especially hand made silver. When I first saw him in the hospital during the war I thought it odd that he wore a bracelet. At the time I remember thinking he must be homosexual. A soldier might have a tattoo on his wrist but never jewelry. 

Riji told him the earrings were her most prized possession, a gift from her mother. MacCumber asked her what the significance of the dancer and the drum was. She replied. "My mother gave these as a gift to me when I was thirteen." She tilted her head, and with her slim thumb and middle finger, Riji pushed the earring on her right ear forward so he could see it better. He wrote that when he leaned forward for a closer look, a breeze caught a ringlet of her black hair and a tress touched his face. He caught the scent of the honey she used as perfume. He told me that it was at that moment that his feelings for Riji changed from being her proud teacher to an infatuated admirer. Riji, in her soft spoken way, said, "The engraved earrings are of Shiva Nata, Lord of the Dance. Can you see, in one of his hands Shiva holds a small drum. The drum represents time. It ticks and ticks to shut out the knowledge of eternity. In Lord Shivaís opposite hand he holds a flame" 

"Yes," MacCumber said. 

She continued, "That is the flame which burns away the veil of time and opens our minds to the eternal." 

The two nuns, Riji, and Jonathan were walking along the crowded street when a tall woman wearing a colorful madras sari nearly knocked them over. A British gentleman was following her. The woman turned and smiled wantonly at him and then disappeared into a brightly painted building. "Where did she go?" the man asked. MacCumber pointed to the lavender colored door. Turning his head right and left, as if he were afraid of being seen, the man entered the building. MacCumber heard him say, "Jeendan, Jeendan, I will pay you whatever you desire."

MacCumber apologized to the three women who were with him. The man was obviously seeking the delights of the flesh. Sister Borgia smiled at MacCumberís embarrassment. "I know the woman, she is the daughter of a concubine in the Maharaja of Amritsarís harem. The girl is a prostitute, and the building is a brothel." MacCumber was shocked that the sister knew the woman and was aware of the whorehouse in her neighborhood. 

"Why do men do such things?" Rijikari asked. "It is against Vishnu."

"God created the male to procreate, and women to nurture. Who are we to question what God ordained? There are two natures of humankind, the spiritual and the physical. We must learn to love both sides. Do not judge this man or woman harshly. Do you remember Magdalene? After Christ was crucified our Lord guided her from Calvary to Marseilles. The clergy tell us she was a prostitute forgiven by Jesus. Could it be she was his wife and it was she who forgave Jesus? " Borgia replied.

MacCumber was appalled. "What do you mean? Jesus is the Son of God, and therefore perfect. He is without sin. Magdalene could not forgive the Son of God!" 

"Jonathan, you forget Jesus was a man. In his embodiment he acted accordingly. Perfection is becoming one with God. Until we reach absorption into god, we are not perfect. Women know, accept, and forgive imperfection."

Sister Borgia took Rijikari, along with Sister Theresa and MacCumber, to the museum to see an exhibition of ancient Hindu sculpture. Riji was interested in the art of the village temples. But once there they discovered a display of watercolors by the French artist, Eugéne Delacroix. Borgia was familiar with his work. She spoke eloquently about color and light. Her knowledge about painting theory was astonishing. When MacCumber asked how she knew of the French artist, the sister replied, "During the time I lived in France, I met two artists and one of them taught me about who was good and who was not and how to really see art, not because itís pretty, but because it reveals passion and truth."

Later that day, they trekked to the city park for a picnic. Sister Borgia sent Rijikari to fetch tea from one of the vendor shops lining the park. Borgia laid a blue cloth on the ground and MacCumber placed their basket, filled with chapatties, chutney, and mangos, on one end to keep the cloth from shifting in the breeze. While Riji was gone, he took the opportunity to ask Borgia more about her friend the artist and who the matador was who taught her to fight bulls. "Jonathan, you know how much I love my sunflowers in the garden. Before I became a nun I lived in a small village in Southern France. I met the painter there and he brought me Sunflowers. He was Dutch, a kind and thoughtful man, who often quoted the bible. He was a client of mine. I liked him, but he was crazy. He caused me to lose my job. At first I was angry with him, but soon after I came to understand that he was the one who set me free. Nothing is by accident, every circumstance has a purpose. It was he who helped me find the place where I now reside. I am now a nun, not the whore I once was. I am a teacher and a gardener. If he had not caused me to be run away, I would not be here. I am grateful to him." She could see the shock on Jonathanís eyes.

Jonathan said her words were interrupted by the sound of a womanís shrill cries for help. MacCumber said he looked up to see Rijikari running toward them. Her husband, brandishing a knife, was on her heels. Jonathan jumped to his feet as Rijikari fell into the arms of Borgia. My friendís fist caught the man flush on the jaw and the husbandís feet flew out from under him. Jonathan was on him in a flash, his elbows flailing and knuckles pummeling away at the manís body. Blood was gushing from his nose and lip. Rijiís husband whimpered and covered his face with his hands, pleading with my friend to stop hitting him, but I guess Jonathan was consumed by anger and retribution. When I wrote back to Jonathan (my non-violent friend) about the incident, he replied, "The bastard did not deserve leniency." 

Jonathan knew the brutality inflicted by Rijiís husband. My friend had read her stories written as fiction, yet based on the reality of her life. She had written it in such a way as to purge the horror in her head and not name the real protagonists or reveal her identity. Jonathan clearly understood it as a biography of Riji. The rapes, the frequent beatings, and the attempt to burn her, were all revealed. 

One night, in a drunken state, Rijiís husband had thrown hot cooking oil at her. She jumped behind a chair. The oil hit the wooden slats, but still managed to splash her arm and burn through the sari she was wearing. Her wounds were far more cavernous than the holes in her skin. There was no way out. She was a tortured prisoner trapped in a demeaning marriage system where all power belonged to the husband. 

In his letter about the fight, Jonathan wrote that a large crowd gathered around them, jumping up and down, howling and cheering for the Indian to clobber him. In the melee Rijiís husband dropped the knife and she picked it up off the ground and pushed it into her husbandís side pulling it out so fast that no one saw it happen. Her mortally wounded husband stumbled a few steps away from her and then dropped to the ground. The knife fell from her hand to the ground. Partially hidden within the dust kicked up in the scuffle, the young Teresa grabbed it and slid it up the sleeve of her habit. Sister Borgia screamed at Riji, but Riji could not comprehend where she was, or in what realm she existed. Finally Borgia slapped Riji back into the world. She grabbed Riji by her wrist and, leaning down, offered her free arm to help MacCumber to his feet. The three of them ran from the park. 

When they reached the school, Borgia told Rijikari. "Get your children and quickly pack your most precious possessions."

Riji ran across the dusty courtyard. She burst into the small classroom where her children were drawing pictures on slate boards. Her hair was disheveled, her face flushed. Her clothes were covered in dirt and there was blood on her sleeve. The young novitiate that was teaching the children was so frightened by Rijiís appearance that all she could do was bless herself with the sign of the cross over and over. Riji lifted Maka into her arms and grabbed Sundarís hand. The two crying children ran with their mother to the far end of the compound. Bursting through the door of the dirt-floored apartment, Riji quickly gathered as much of her childrenís clothing as she could. With the exception of the hand mirror and comb her parents had given to her on her 16th birthday, she did not take any other personal possessions. All her sariís, shoes, and undergarments were paid for with her husbandís money and she wanted no part of keeping things that came from him. She grabbed Makaís favorite stuffed toy bear. They ran to Borgiaís office.

Borgia told MacCumber, "If you value Riji and the children, you must take them out of the country. If she stays, the manís family will find them and revenge will be the outcome. Riji will be stoned to death, Maka burned as trash, and Sundar sold into slavery. They have to escape. You have to escape. Leave now. Never, absolutely never, should you, or they, return to India!" 

My friend assured her that he would take care of them. Jonathan mentioned his connections in Della Chack and that he could hide them there until the situation blew over.

She said to him that the only thing in India that blows over are typhoons, and they usually destroy everything in their path. She repeated her demand that they all get out of India quickly, warning Jonathan that to linger would be fatal to all of them. He put his hand on the Bible sitting on Borgiaís bed stand and swore heíd get them to America. 

As Jonathan described the scene, she bent down on one knee and put her hand under the desktop. Pulling out a yellowed envelope, she handed it to MacCumber. Inside were fifty bills of French francs and Indian rupees in large denominations. Borgia and MacCumber argued briefly over the gift, but were interrupted by the gardener. Amar smeared dark clay over MacCumberís face, feet, and hands to disguise his white skin. He then helped dress my friend in Hindu attire. 

Borgia pleaded for them to leave quickly. She was afraid the police would be there at any moment. MacCumber said that he held the nun in his arms until Amar pulled him away saying, "Sahib, we must leave now."

MacCumber laid in the back of an ox cart with Rijikariís frightened sons. The children and Jonathan were hidden under a tarp covered with stalks of Borgiaís prized sunflowers. As Amar settled next to Riji on the cartís driving bench, he handed her a scarf and told her to cover her face so that no one would recognize her. He cracked his whip and the donkey lunged forward, its hoofs clicking and clacking on the cobblestone road. If anyone saw them they would think Amar and the woman were flower merchants heading to the Chowringhee market. 

They passed the governorís palace and made their way to the Hooghy River. The river flows through Katwa and Kalna and then begins to change course as it enters the city of Nurpur and the channel of the Ganges. At that point, it turns south and empties into the Bay of Bengal. After days of grueling travel, the four exhausted escapees boarded a French steamer bound for the South Seas. 

Fear and excitement traveled with them. The voyage would be long and arduous, but Rijikari, her sons and Jonathan would be safe. Paradise was 10,000 miles away. 
 
 


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